Friday, November 11, 2005

An Interview with a Pearl Harbor Survivor

My family has a strong military tradition - no career soldiers (except for my brother-in-law), but vets of Guadacannal, D-Day, Korea, Vietnam,WWI, etc. On this Veteran's Day, I extend a thank-you to all the members of our military, past and present.

When I was 17 I interviewed my Great Uncle Leo, a Navy vet that was present at Pearl Harbor. I was a shy, nervous kid, and if I had a time machine I'd go back and ask a hundred different questions. Still, at least his memories are on record. The complete transcript is on file with the local historical society.

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My Uncle Leo was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1920. A Machinist’s Mate 1st Class in the Navy, he was a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and served his country for five years aboard the USS Vestal - a vessel moored alongside the Arizona that fateful morning. His 49 year marriage to  produced three daughters and an equal number of grandchildren. A retired employee of General Electric Medical Systems, he died in 1999 from complications of a stroke.

At the time of this interview he was 70 years old, and the interviewer 17.

A: [I was a] machinist I would run lathes, mills, repaired, went and repaired ships that were sunk or brought up. If we had to repair ships we had to go on ships and repair them.. . .

Q What was wrong with the Arizona, that you were moored alongside?

A: Well, we were doing a routine…a routine overhaul on it. Supposed to. That day we pulled alongside of them.

Q: You pulled alongside on the seventh?

A: No, the sixth.

Q And that was supposed to start Monday or something?

A: Yeah. We pulled over Saturday. So we pulled over Saturday night over to the Arizona, ‘cause I was gonna see a bunch of buddies of mine aboard the Arizona that I went through training with.

Q: Did they make it through?

A: I didn’t see….[sad]

Q: Now that morning [12-7-41] you were heading to church right?

A: Yeah, we were going to church. There was, well all together there was about 13 of us. And..

Q: Were you already on land?

A: Oh yeah. We were going to church and then they started their bombing..that’s when these two airplanes started dive-bombing us and shooting machine gun bullets at us. The guy next to me got killed, from my department. His name was Kerrigan. He was, I think, the first guy that died.

Q: Did you know what was going on right away?

A: No, no. We thought, I looked up there and I saw them and I said "Jesus, [unintelligible; perhaps ‘mock warfare’] dressed as Japanese". ‘Til they turned around and started machine gunning. We were going [into the] church, we tried to get into the church. Now they had a round concrete thing [gesturing] that went over like that. It went from one end open to the other. Well this guy would shoot these machine gun bullets through there and we . ..but we were running to get out of the way when he got killed, when he got killed we were alongside of a fence. And . . the bullets went all in between, you could see the cars behind us all had holes in ‘em, and out of thirteen guys he was the only one killed. One guy out of thirteen of us. And we were all close, one alongside of each other. How them bullets got between us and hit him only, I don’t know. Because the cars in the back with all holes [in] ‘em.

Q: What’d you do after that?

A: Well, then we ran. They told us to get back to the ships.

Q: Did you make it back to the ship?

A: No. Couldn’t get it. We couldn’t get..they wouldn’t let ya, they were gunning, machine gunning. So then I had … we went to the dock, and we were supposed to go aboard [a] submarine, ‘cause they didn’t have enough crewmen. Then somebody said to us to go man a machine gun on a beach, so that’s where I went. And then about half of the day, at night I delivered camels, these big wooden squares they call it. They put between ships so they don’t collide [with] each other. I delivered them between these ships, at night, so they could maneuver around, the ships. So, we had that duty at night, and after we got back we machine gun…the ship got sunk, our ship. We rammed it into the beach. Then I went back there and we manned machine guns, the whole ship.

Q: Is that how you spent the day, just at a machine gun?

A: Yeah, spent the whole day. It only took a few minutes. I mean the attack was [laughs] aboard the Vestal and there it didn’t take long. [The Japanese] dropped two bombs aboard our ship, one was in the back and it didn’t explode. One was forward, it hit the deck, went through the mez deck [sp?], killed I don’t know, 3 or 4 people aboard there, the mez deck . . . and then went into what they call a metal locker, where we kept billets for machining like for, and material for machining, like brass, copper, menal [sp?], stainless steel for repairing ships. Well, the bomb hit that and exploded see, otherwise maybe it would have gone right through the ship too.

Q: Shrapnel everywhere, eh?

A: Oh God, yeah.

Q: Is there anything else you remember about that, about Pearl Harbor?

A: No, just that [laughs] I was scared like hell.[laughs] We all were running, you know, trying to get away from him. And there were two of ‘em, and they coming, one would come this way and the other one would come this way. Everybody was running around. Then we, they sent us to eat. And then we got into the line then they stopped all the lines and said all the food was poisoned, nobody could eat. Yeah, we didn’t have nothin’ to eat. I didn’t have anything to eat from Sunday morning ‘til Monday morning. I went aboard my ship, on deck, and we had the cook made eggs.

Q: So there were rumors going around …

A: Yeah. Blood was splattered all over the mez deck. But that was the first meal I had in say, 24 hours.

Q: Were you worried, like, there were rumors, like, Hawaii was going [to be invaded]. . .

A: Yes! Well, that’s why we were manning the machine guns on the beach, to, for an attack. And I don’t know how many of our planes, they wouldn’t even let our own planes come in to Hawaii, they were knocking them down. Because they didn’t know…

Q: Everyone was jumpy and everything. . .

A: Yeah. And we, they killed dogs, and cows. Yeah! Anything that moved they shot at, I mean everybody was afraid, you know?

Q: Afterwards what did you do?

A: Well, we would…after Pearl Harbor?

Q: Yeah.

A: Then we were all sent out to repair ships.

Q: I mean right after Pearl Harbor. In the book it said you went to the Oklahoma and cut it open, or you went and repaired your own ship . . .

A: Yeah.

Q: What did you do? Did you go to another ship, or. ..

A: No. I was aboard my ship, making parts for the ships, like the ones that needed repair, especially the Enterprise, carriers or that, that had to go out. And we worked like that for two weeks, then we went into dry-dock. And repaired ourselves. They had a big hole in our rear end. So what we did, they made a wooden box and he took a big piece of canvas, put it underneath the hole, brought the cranes up, pulled the box up, and we poured concrete for a whole…I think it was fifteen hours they poured concrete down in that hole to plug that hole up. Then they kept air in it, as they were pouring, then we took it and pumped out all the water right?

Q Yeah.

A: Then we got the ship [to] come up. We righted the ship up. Then we went and repaired all these other ships. We sent crews here, and crews there. Well I was in the machine shop, so we needed parts, so I was working on lathes and stuff. And, after we got done repairing as much of these ships as we could, ones that were so bad that they had just patch ‘em up so they could go to a repair base where they could put ‘em in a big dry-dock and repair them. Because you had to cut big holes in it. That’s what we had to do. We had to go into a dry-dock. But we repaired our own ship. We cut the plate out and we welded a new one up in there, and fixed our ship so it could go on the way.

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slapinions said...

me: John Schroeter
Site Rating: 10
Visitor Comments: Thanks for your uncle's memories. My father's cousin was Raymond J. Kerrigan, also a Machinist's Mate 1st class on the vestal. He died that day, "the first killed". My father later served as a 2nd Leiutenant on the Vestal. My father never quite got over Ray's loss.  

slapinions said...

Date: 2005-11-12 10:47:13

Name: Jeanne
Site Rating: 10
Visitor Comments: Love the Vet post, you did Uncle Leo proud....